Monday, June 2, 2014

Broken vows

Over the years I've made a number of promises to myself, usually about reading choices. Authors who insist on writing in dialect generally annoy the heck out of me, so I keep saying I won't read books that contain a lot of dialect or attempts at mimicking a regional accent. Authors who turn pets into characters or (even worse) have the pets serve as narrators also annoy me. I've spent many years avoiding books where you get to see what the cat or the dog or some other critter is thinking. The whole concept of seeing anything through the dog's eyes struck me as being way too twee for my taste.

As for dialect, in my many years of reading, I can think of exactly one book where the author did such a smooth job with writing dialect that it felt natural rather than affected -- Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin. In every other example I can recall, attempts at the local dialect come across as stilted, unbelievable, condescending, distracting, or all of the above. Thus, one of my other promises to myself as a reader is that once I've seen that an author has a weakness for writing in dialect I'll avoid that author's work in the future.

In the past two weeks I managed to break both of those promises to myself. First, I made the mistake of reading a second Joseph Heywood book: Running Dark. My only excuse is that I knew Heywood sets his mysteries in the Upper Peninsula (his protagonist, Grady Service, is a Department of Natural Resources conservation officer). I had read one book in the series already (Blue Wolf in Green Fire) so decided to try another to see if it was any better. It's pretty common for the first few books by an author to be a tad awkward, but then the writer improves with time (or acquires a better copy editor). Heywood did not improve. If anything, the amount of what Heywood apparently thinks is Yooperese increased. Even worse, when Heywood starts salting in the Yooperese, it's generally to signal that the character speaking with a local accent is the Upper Michigan equivalent of a dumb yokel, a redneck, or a hick. Service himself supposedly grew up in the U.P. -- he's second generation DNR; his father was a game warden in the same district Service now covers -- so why doesn't Grady himself have a regional accent?

 In any case, there are other flaws in Heywood's books. Despite his claims of having spent a lot of time talking with conservation officers and doing research in the U.P., I kept getting the feeling that the research consisted of looking at a Rand McNally and reading state park brochures. It's like the fact the U.P. is huge just doesn't register with Heywood. He has Grady living near Bark River but dropping in to the DNR office in Newberry for morning coffee and makes it sound like the two towns are a few minutes apart when they're actually separated by about 125 miles. A run up to Marquette wouldn't be quite as bad (it's only about 80 miles) but it's still not right next door. I know cops can get places faster than we mere mortals who lack sirens and flashing red and blue lights on our cars, but so far as I know even cops can't teleport.

Okay, having screwed up by selecting a book to read that I knew in advance was likely to feature an annoying amount of dialect, what did I do?

I checked out a book -- Dog On It -- that warned me up front it was going to look at the world through a dog's eyes. Why? I don't know. Maybe because it was a dog and not a cat. There are a lot of mystery writers out there who love using cats as plot devices but not many that use dogs. I was curious.

The good news? The author, Spencer Quinn, can actually write. It made the annoyance of seeing everything through the dog's eyes a little less annoying. The book was remarkably readable. Will I read any other books in what appears to be a series (all narrated by the dog)? No. Because they're narrated by the dog.


  1. With all the time I have spent in the Arctic I am drawn to books with Arctic Native cultures... They would not feel authentic without the 'village language'that is so much a part of the culture.

    I do agree that it takes an especially skilled author to carry off a dialect - and so many fall to stereotyping - ugg
    the Ol'Buzzard


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